African Literature

African literature isn't just the voices of African people during colonialism and the slave trade. It is much more than that. It covers the stories of African people before colonialism, during colonialism, and after colonialism (this is known as post-colonial literature).

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    African literature reflects the stories of people from hundreds of years ago and the people who live now. It is a hugely important part of the literary world as it brings underrepresented voices to the fore and allows them to re-tell their experiences of the world.

    African literature: characteristics

    There are many defining characteristics of African literature and African books. Though there are differences between the literature of each country, the following characteristics are present in most books.


    African literature not only comes in the written form but also as oral literature. Before colonialism, Africans would tell their stories orally and through performance, sometimes using music as well.

    After colonialism, the African writers started to write in European languages such as English, Portuguese, and French. Their stories would share similar themes such as denouncing European colonisation of the African countries, the greatness of their African past before the European countries invaded, and hope for independence in the future of Africa.

    African authors who wrote in European languages were many times accused of trying to cater for a western audience but the true reason behind their intentions was to portray their experience in a language that the oppressors could understand. 1

    Historical influences

    Another characteristic of African literature is the writers’ focus on themes of freedom and independence, questions of identity and liberation.

    In the period between 1881 and 1914, known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, numerous European powers took control of most of Africa. The only three countries untouched by the Europeans were the Dervish State, Liberia, and Ethiopia.

    The slave trade that lasted approximately four hundred years is also another key historical influence on African literature.

    The Atlantic slave trade involved the movement of more than twelve million African people to America to work as slaves. Some of these slaves eventually gained their freedom and those who were literate started writing stories to fight against slavery by recounting their horrifying experiences as slaves. The first generation of these narrators was Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and Ignatius Sancho.

    Types of African literature

    The different types of African literature can be divided into four groups:

    • Oral African literature
    • Pre-colonial African literature
    • Colonial African literature
    • Post-colonial literature

    These can further be divided into three periods of African literature: during African liberation, colonialism of Africa, and Africa after colonialism.

    Oral African literature

    African oral literature was performative. Its themes were usually mythological and historical.

    Performance, tone, riddles, and proverbs were key components of oral African literature. These elements were manipulated by the orator to produce certain effects on their audience.

    The performer also often had visual aids during their performance. As the performer was usually face-to-face with the public, they were able to perform in specific ways by using mimicry, gestures, and expressions to produce an impact on their audience. They could also portray a certain image by dressing up as a specific character.

    Oral African literature was versatile and communal. Performers could at times even introduce pieces of their older stories into their new stories or create completely new content and structures in their stories.

    Pre-colonial African literature

    Pre-colonial African literature is the literature written between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries and includes the Atlantic slave trade.

    These stories were based on the folklore of different regions in African countries.

    For example, Sungura is a hare in folklore in East Africa and Central Africa. Often, these stories included mischievous animal characters such as Anansi, a spider found in the folklore of the Ashanti tribe in Ghana.

    It is important to understand that before colonial rule, African literature existed. Africans wrote in Africa as well as in the west and they also wrote in their native languages.

    Colonial African literature

    Colonial African Literature was produced between the end of World War I and African independence (the date of which depends on the different countries, such as Ghana's 1957 independence from British control and Algeria's independence in 1962 from France). It contained themes of independence, liberation and négritude.

    Traditionally, Africans combine teaching in their art forms. For example, rather than writing or singing about beauty, African people use elements of beauty to portray crucial facts and information about African society.

    Négritude: a movement starting in the 1930s led by African people in places controlled by the French who were raising awareness of ‘Black consciousness’ and protesting against French colonisation. Aimé Césaire was the first to use the word 'Négritude' in his poem 'Cahier d’un retour au pays natal' (1939). Other key poets presenting Négritude in their poetry were Léon Damas in his Pigments (1937) and Sédar Senghor’s in his Hosties noire (1948).

    Post-colonial African Literature

    Writers in this period wrote in both western languages and African languages. The main themes that African authors explore in post-colonial African Literature are the relationship between modernity and tradition, the relationship between Africa’s past and Africa’s present, individuality and collectivism, the notion of foreignness and indigenous, capitalism and socialism, and what it means to be African.

    Writers who reflect these themes in their writing include Chinua Achebe in Arrow of God (1964) and Ngugi wa Thiong'o in Wizard of the Crow (2006).

    In the quote below from Purple Hibiscus (2003) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author reflects on the relationship between Africa's past and present by showing how Kambili has been taught to see God as white. For her, God can't be her skin colour as the colour black isn't 'pure' enough for God. It also presents the strained relationship she has with her skin colour and her understanding that the colour white is good and pure:

    When she made a U-turn and went back the way we had come, I let my mind drift, imagining God laying out the hills of Nsukka with his wide white hands, crescent-moon shadows underneath his nails just like Father Benedict’s. 2

    Short stories in African literature

    Let's explore some African short stories.

    Wives at war and other stories (1980) by Flora Nwapa

    This collection of short stories focuses on the involvement of women in wars. They portray the different experiences of women during the Nigerian civil war and show the bravery of the military leaders of Biafra's women's organisations. These women started a war against the bureaucracy that didn't allow them to represent their homeland around the world.

    The stories also portray women's hatred of war. There are women who are not interested in politics and rather focus more on familial concerns. There are some who would sacrifice everything to prevent their loved ones from being conscripted into the army.

    Let’s tell this story properly (2014) by Jennifer Nansugba Makumbi

    In this collection of short stories, Makumbi presents the lives of Ugandans in Britain. Whether they are highly visible individuals or barely noticed, whether they care for the elderly or work in hospitals, Makumbi aims to show how the lives of Ugandans who live in Britain are not included in 'White British' life. As these characters try to find themselves in Britain, their homeland drifts further and further away from them.

    Who will greet you at home (2015) by Lesley Nneka Arimah

    Set in a surrealistic version of Lagos, women must fabricate a child out of materials from the earth: the special ingredient is words from an elderly woman and they must take care of it for a year before it comes to life. Arimah uses this story to critique Nigerian society's obsession with babies; she criticises the belief that a woman can only achieve her purpose by having children.

    Other stories from African literature

    • What it means when a man falls from the sky (2017)by Lesley Nneka Arimah.
    • A private experience (2008) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
    • Tales of tenderness and power (1991) by Bessie Head.
    • I am not my skin (2017) by Neema Komba.
    • Diplomatic pounds & other stories (2012) by Ama Ata Aidoo.
    • Go tell the sun (2011) by Wame Molefhe.

    African American literature: timeline

    Let's talk about African American literature.

    Before the Civil War

    One of the first ‘slave narratives' of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was The interesting life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). This was just one of the many enslaved people narratives that were written at the time and although it wasn’t one of the key texts in the American abolitionist movement, it spread the anti-slavery message in Britain.

    Slave narratives: slave narratives are the autobiographies of enslaved Africans. Many of these enslaved people's narratives were written by African Americans who had escaped or were freed.

    Frederick Douglass’s autobiography Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass (1845) was an important text in the American abolitionist movement and remains a hugely successful text. When it was published, it sold thousands of copies instantly and before the Civil War. Historians believe that approximately 30,000 copies of the book were sold.

    The American abolitionist movement was an organised movement to end slavery in the US. The first leaders of the campaign (between 1830 and 1870) took inspiration from the strategies that British abolitionists used to end slavery in Britain during the 1830s.

    During the Civil War

    Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the life of a slave girl (1861) was another important slave narrative published during the Civil War. It was originally published in a newspaper and presents further intersectionality into the discrimination of African people as it presents the different experiences she had to face as a female slave.

    Intersectionality: the interconnection between social categories such as gender, class, and race in a certain group overlap to produce further discrimination. For example, discrimination against Black people wasn't the same for all Black people. Further discrimination may have happened to a Black person depending on whether they were a woman, elderly, or disabled person.

    After the Civil War

    After the Civil War, the Jim Crow laws in the south of America enforced racial segregation between Black people and White people. This prompted Black writers in the United States, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois to write 'Up from slavery' (1901) and 'Souls of Black fold' (1903) respectively. These essays explored issues of social mobility and black people’s right to equal treatment in work and education.

    By 1910 and 1920, Black writers were being more and more recognised in fiction and poetry. One of Claude McKay’s famous poems ‘If we must die,’ (1917) focuses on racial discrimination and the civil rights of Black people and in particular the violence as a result of the Jim Crow laws.

    In the early 1950s, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible man (1952) was published. It explored the socio-political struggles faced by the Black people in the south of America and Harlem. In this book, the author implies that racism isn’t geographically inclined but is part of the American consciousness.

    Later on, female authors such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker contributed to African American literature with their books. In The Color Purple (1982), Walker portrays segregation in Georgia in the 1930s and in Beloved (1987), Morrison tells a story of a family during the American Civil War and presents the many horrors the slave trade caused.

    African Literature - Key takeaways

    • African literature is divided into four different types depending on the type period when a piece was written or performed: oral African literature, pre-colonial African literature, colonial African literature, and post-colonial African literature.
    • African oral literature was performative and was often about mythological and historical stories.
    • Pre-colonial African literature covers the time between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries and includes the Atlantic slave trade. These stories were based on the folklore of different regions in African countries.
    • Colonial African Literature was produced between the end of World War I and African independence. It contained themes of independence, liberation, and négritude.
    • African writers wrote in both western languages and African languages. The main themes that African authors explore in post-colonial African literature are the relationship between modernity and tradition, the relationship between Africa’s past and Africa’s present, individuality and collectivism, the notion of foreignness and indigenous, capitalism and socialism, and what it means to be African.

    1. Aneeta Joseph, 'Themes in African Literature,' Academia, 2016.

    2. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus, 2003.

    Frequently Asked Questions about African Literature

    What is modern African literature?

    Modern African literature is literature written in indigenous languages of Africa as well as European languages. It includes oral literature as well as written literature.

    What are the famous African literary pieces?

    Famous African literature includes:

    Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe

    Purple hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Half of a yellow sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Beloved by Tony Morrison

    What are characteristics of African literature?

    The characteristics of African literature concern themes related to colonisation, African independence, liberation, and African pride.

    What are the five major themes of African literature?

    The five major themes of African literature are colonialism, tradition, displacement, liberation, and nationalism. 

    What makes African literature unique?

    African literature is unique because African novels include aspects of oral literature (such as riddles, proverbs and songs).

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